“The traditional fine arts rely on the distinction between authentic and fake, between original and copy, between good taste and bad taste; the media blur, if they do not abolish outright, these distinctions. The fine arts assume that certain experiences or subjects have a meaning. The media are essentially contentless (this is the truth behind Marshall McLuhan’s celebrated remark about the message being the medium itself); their characteristic tone is ironic, or dead-pan, or parodistic. It is inevitable that more and more art will be designed to end as photographs.” Susan Sontag Photographic Evangels
These last two Rough Trade posts will be about some of the solutions to the problems posed by Postmodernism that I have applied to my painting. I’m very specific about what my work is doing and the way I put it together. I will say straight out that my solutions may not resonate with you, and that is OK. I won’t be discussing the works’ meaning directly, but I will be discussing my style and how I intend that to create meaning in the work. Like all artists I prefer you come to your own conclusions, but make no mistake, the work will lead you to meaning through visual engagement. I intend the meaning to be IN the painting rather than through a contextual engagement with an extended field. These paintings are meant as a direct visual confrontation. So with that caveat let us begin…
For this first part of Rough Trade – Vision let’s start with the basics – the Form and Structure of a painting. You might call this the entry level to painting. And with these basics we’ll begin to unravel the contemporary Conundrum – how to get beyond Postmodern sensibilities. The not-so-simple truth is that when one starts to tackle Form and Structure one either sets oneself on the path to understanding or one sets oneself up for compositional disaster. How many times do painters find themselves stuck when the foundation no longer holds the Form? Foundations will always determine how the Form will unfold no matter what bullshit about improvisation and extended field we’ve all been told. So in the spirit of function I have done this particular series of Black & White paintings in order to focus our visual engagement, to attack the Form & Structure head on. What I want to convey first is that these paintings involve a Post-Postmodern theoretical visual engagement rather than the usual Postmodern critical optical engagement. I have also set these works apart from 20th century Modernism, from flatness, materiality and pure abstraction. First, I’ve accessed the process of Modernist abstraction indirectly, using classic studio techniques to integrate and synthesize Postmodern lens replication into vision. And secondly, I’ve applied a thicker, more complex visual interplay into the work, a kind of primary process. For this post let’s sidestep the issues of color.
Briefly, in Modernism everything tended to move to flatness and to surface, which brought us, finally, to the materiality of the thing in itself. In Postmodernism we moved from the material to the immaterial, from the physicality of process, to the mapping of those processes through lenses and programs. During these two major movements of the 20th Century the way we understand what we see changed significantly. We began to rely on the lens to provide the context and complete the visual process for whatever we encountered in the world around us. We began to expect that our vision adhere to the limitations of the lens, until finally, it framed every visual experience, fleshy memory and cultural encounter. This optical hegemony has been further compounded by the fact that computers and programs rely almost exclusively on the lens to upload and manipulate that optical data. This alliance of program and lens has forever changed how we accept and interpret visual information. For example the program Photoshop is used both as an abstraction machine and an image manipulator providing the collaged surface patterning we have come to regard as “abstract” and also the enhanced optical photo imaging used to describe “reality.” We have defined EVERYTHING as Art creating a culture of the hyper-real. With this sort of lens based programming ideas of reproduction, representation and appropriation have come to dominate our views of late 20th and early 21st Century art making. The process of fetishized optical replication is now the ONLY art and art’s programmed dematerialization is the outcome of that process. Painters, especially, have been trapped in the endgame of this tautological mechanization of vision.
From 19 Sixty through the end of the 20th Century there have been furtive suggestions and not-so-quiet speculations about painting’s current predicament from some of our Modern Masters. Picasso’s late work which for many years was overlooked and ignored, we’ve discussed at length in other posts. Frank Stella’s Working Space tried to propose a different approach to abstraction as he speculated that Baroque illusionistic space could infuse painting with a new visual viability. However, this approach contradicts his work’s overt OTT POMO mannerism and his insistence on Modernism’s flatness and physicality. David Hockney’s tremendous and ground breaking theory of the history of lenses in Western painting in Secret Knowledge opened up a different argument about how we can understand vision. Hockney has found renewed ambition for his work, but he remains happily tied to a kind of Pre-Modern Pop Naturalism exemplified by his use of multiple “lens” viewpoints a process he calls “wonky.” He looks backward rather than forward. What I found in these Masters’ work and in their thoughts were hints of an alternative solution to the Postmodern conundrum, to the limitations of the flat, billboard-like, contextual appropriation that has slowly squeezed the life out of painterly visual engagement. But unlike them, I find it imperative that I use the visual tools of both the Modern and Postmodern world to form a different sort of abstract painting based on a more expansive visual engagement.
“But the truths that can be rendered in a dissociated moment, however significant or decisive, have a very narrow relation to the needs of understanding. Contrary to what is suggested by the humanist claims made for photography, the camera’s ability to transform reality into something beautiful derives from its relative weakness as a means of conveying truth.” Susan Sontag The Heroism of Vision
I want to discuss painting Structure in relation to our lens infused culture. I believe that we should approach this Structure from a different perspective, a different “view” from both Modernist painting which relies on a traditional figure ground relationship, and Postmodernism which relies on a collage billboard approach. These types of structures were both formed through lenses, reproduction and replication. Modernism supposedly freed painting to become what it was – material and surface. It found liberation in painting purity. Postmodernism repudiated the Modern by embracing lens replication programming fragmenting and dematerializing Modernism. The pure became the invisible, the pretexts of Modernism became the contexts of Postmodernism, and the lens, once the liberator of painting, became the fascination of painting. In both movements we have to understand HOW a lens works as it composes both the figure/field and the collage/ground. In both movements we must understand how these compositional devices are perceived as a kind of reality or a patterning that involves an optical reality rather than a visual one.
First the lens flattens. Whether we are looking at a landscape or a portrait, the lens pushes everything straight to the surface and across that surface from side to side. Artists understood this effect from the beginning of photography’s inception. Even so-called “primitive” cultures understood this “flattening” of experiential vision, likening it to capturing someone’s essence or holding on to their time. By removing the physical experiential part of vision – the thickening of perception through time – the rising subject is submerged and subordinated to the process of optical mechanization – it is submerged by the ground, the focus becomes the process. In other words we create a sign or an avatar through lens imaging. (Think of a passport photo, an imaged likeness that becomes a blank ground or Jasper Johns’ flayed self portraits.)
The second part is the “likeness” that the imaged replication produces. We have come to regard this “likeness” as a form of documentation, a type of reality on which we base our understanding and expectations of how culture works. But it is the machine that captures this reality, it is the program that catalogues and manipulates it, and it is the programmed process that keeps replicating the data and submerging it back into the ground. Likeness becomes data and is separated from meaning. (Think of the ubiquity of the Che Guevara T-Shirt or the image of Albert Einstein with his tongue hanging out.)
Painting requires both eye and hand, one translates vision through the physical manifestation of sight. This practice demands that one develop a skill underwritten by one’s consciousness and memory. When we rely on the lens we become dependent on the machine, on the program and on the process of that appropriation – we are not required to become involved. Our hands remain “clean.” In relying on the lens we have to seek expression through the materiality or the process of the imaging, and this takes precedence over the thing seen in itself, we remain distanced and removed. In other words there is no longer the need to engage a rising subject, the ground is the outcome of optically focused attention. We are empty handed.
Many traditional painters (both abstract and figurative) still want to hold on to the academic ideal of “slow painting” hoping that the visual connection to an older process provides a visual weight or viability to their work. But because something is hand made doesn’t necessarily make it visually stronger, especially when relying on traditional historic precedential Structures to create the composition. A “thing in a field” or the “field as the thing” can not carry us further, can not create something seen in our dematerialized age. Instead what we experience when looking at this sort of work is the appropriated image, the submerged likeness. So artists have fetishized the idea of touch, that their moment of expression was the key to a type of humanity. There has been a great deal of abstract work in the last 30 years that encapsulated that touch. But this fetishization of the handmade is not enough to provide a rich visual encounter, especially as it recontextualizes Modernist practice. What we get in that case is Mannerism without the vision, something that employs a known and “pre-existing” condition. Instead, our focus must be direct, and we must abstract through all of our messy humanity without a reliance on an historical Expressionism.
But to achieve this we can not do it in the old ways. Postmodernism has cleared away that past, and it is the Postmodern that we must push against. The lens image is instantaneous, quick, and impersonal and our vision must accomodate this. We must isolate and define the world just as the lens does. But we must also refine this, take this back into our physical selves, reclaim the process of seeing. For me the delineation and composition of Structure is close to the idea of a lens-captured image, but as a PAINTER, the process must become more personal, more physically direct. Traditionally, painters defined this visual encounter of thickness through mass and volume. I wanted to accomplish this same effect, but in a quicker, direct way using both traditional chiarscuro (light and dark) and cross hatching (a process delineating light and dark) one re-defining the other, one creating a visual tension with the other. I double the process of volumizing, of creating thickness while playing the game of Modernism, the game of flatness. The lens is far too quick at localizing effects, so as a painter, I felt I must counter that effect with delineation, using drawing to reconfigure the speed of lens sight. Delineation allows for instantaneous focus, but it also allows for memory in a way the lens does not. I felt that Captured Structure rather than Appropriated Structure would be made visual in this way without the use of a program, of Postmodern extended fields, and this technique relied directly on the eye, on vision to provide engaged meaning. I felt this was a different way to use drawing and painting. It is both lens and flesh and it creates a thicker visual experience. For the early Modernist drawing was essential to the realization of form and it was through drawing that process and flatness became ascendant. Drawing wasn’t determined by photo-chemicals or later by the electronic program, rather it was a directly experienced event extending in time through the artist, through memory. It is why Matisse and Picasso were both so insistent on drawing and bringing that drawing into painting. With this sort of Structure we attack lens programming with painting’s strengths.
What we have come to expect from POMO work is a preoccupation with the idea of reproduction, or more precisely, replication. Replication in itself is threefold, first it captures, second it simplifies optical processing, and finally, it does away with the concept of the original. The idea of a simplified process was an interesting solution to the problem of Form, and if I could slip through the process, both the capture and the replication would become redundant to the outcome. I thought it boiled down to the fact that I would have to use simplified reproductive processes in a handmade way. Crosshatching, block shading and line reduction all could link me back to the immediacy of drawing by using the accepted tools of Postmodern reproduction and replication to get me there. So I created a complicated process of using illusionistic painting techniques structured through academic drawing techniques and finally pulled those through a lens based reproductive process. (Think of Picasso’s etchings and Lichtenstein’s paintings as a model.) I used this to emphasize and explicate the Form itself. This would move me beyond the Postmodern program by subverting its subservience to the replicating process. Drawing and Painting at the same time put the rising subject back into my hands, so to speak, without resorting to a reactionary contextual historicism. I wanted to create a new painting hybrid. In this way my abstraction retained process, but process connected to actual visual practice rather than one allied to optical signifiers. Additionally, by subverting the Postmodern tendency to create signifiers rather than bodies I could complete the VISUAL work without the lens. The work is contained, the visual idea is implicit, and the rising subject takes precedence in the abstracted vision. The work is neither part of the traditional figure/ground or part of the electronic billboard, but something else, visual and thorough.
For me abstraction must comprise a radical visual engagement. This new active seeing should not be aligned to flatness or surface, context or appropriation but to Form and Structure. Abstraction, and especially, abstract painting, must adapt itself to a deeper visual understanding of meaning rather than remain content to follow our current practice of “optical” recognition so that we may push away from the Postmodern. In these paintings the Form is abstract, must be abstract, but it is abstracted from a visual encounter, an engaged memory with (in this case) a figurative element, something that I have experienced directly. It is figuration up close, Form and Structure as directly encountered. This is something I call Close Vision – this is vision of touch. We see a similar thing happen in lens work when we watch a movie. The lens creates an intimacy for the viewer when the camera moves in close to the subjects, cutting and focusing on aspects of what is being touched. We use our eyes in a similar manner when we become intimate with a rising subject. When we’re in close we “feel” with our eyes. We’re not sure of what we see, but we visualize texture, structure, shape, temperature etc., to come to understand what we think we see. Our eyes become dominant as they are extended through the “touch” of our other senses. By emphasizing the Form and Structure in such a way we create a sort of visual physical intimacy while honing a connection to an enhanced understanding of the visual subject. We achieve a Thickness that remains unfulfilled in Postmodern lens appropriation, and we form a visual presence, a rising subject unmet by Modernist physicality. By asserting Structure and Form in this way we move beyond the extended Postmodern ground and focus again on visual presence, movement and Thickness. The immaterial no longer dominates.
In the next part of this post we will discuss Light, Space and Color and expand on the ideas we’ve been discussing so far.
Coming up Vision Part II…